FEELING SILENCED: Some Christians feel like their freedom of expression is being curtailed
NEARLY 60 per cent of the population of England and Wales described themselves as Christian in the 2011 census. Yet religion has been the centre of hot debates as the rights of Christians and other faiths appear to clash with the rights of other groups, such as the gay community and employers.
Premier Christian Radio is insisting that there is an “attack on the freedom of speech for Christians” after a Court of Appeal decision on November 19 upheld a ban on an advert inviting Christians to document their experiences of marginalisation in the workplace.
The advert, which was first prepared for broadcast in 2010, was blocked by the Radio Advertising Clearance Centre (RACC), because it was “directed to a political end.” The main issue was its promise that the data collected will be used “to help a fairer society.”
A Judicial Review in March 2012 upheld the RACC’s decision, but the Christian campaigners were granted leave to appeal. During the appeal, the court itself was divided on the issue.
Judge L. J. Elias insisted that any advertisement whose purpose was to facilitate debate was not directed towards a political end. He said: “If an advertisement does not itself constitute a partial political message, why should it be banned?”
But the Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson, declared the advertisement to be unlawful, saying it was “directed to the political end of making a fairer society by reducing or eliminating the marginalisation of Christians in the workplace” – contrary to broadcasting legislation.
On receiving news of the decision, Premier Radio CEO Peter Kerridge said it was a “bad day for freedom of speech for Christians (and) democracy in general.” He said: “This would suggest that any radio advertisement calling for data to inform public debate to help a fairer society would also be banned. But we have to ask ourselves did parliament really intend a blanket ban on radio adverts for surveys?”
He added: “The wording of the advert did not seek to achieve a political end, it had no political message and there was no attempt to influence the listener to a particular viewpoint, so there appears to be no good reason to ban it.
Kerridge contended that “the public interest cannot be best served by preventing people from gaining information and we believe that such a ban represents an attack on freedom of speech for everyone.”
Andrea Minichiello Williams, chief executive of Christian Concern, described the ban as “chilling” and “bewildering.”
The organisation said it received over 50 calls a week from people claiming to be discriminated against in the workplace. They are currently supporting the high-profile case of south London Christian, Celestina Mba, who took Merton Council to court after she was forced to quit her job when she was refused a day off on Sunday, the day of her Sabbath.
Minichiello Williams said: “We have seen Christian adverts being banned in other areas whilst those of other special interest groups have been allowed.
“TV adverts for abortion clinics, bus ads by humanists claiming there is probably no God and bus ads by a gay campaign group telling us to ‘get over it’. Christian adverts in response to the ‘get over it’ posters were not allowed.
She added: “There now appears to be a clear asymmetry in how Christian messages are being treated by advertising standards bodies.”
The organisation’s co-founder, Pastor Ade Omooba, added: “What we are moving towards is militant secularism. When Christians in Nigeria were marginalised because of their faith and the area they were in, quite a lot of people did not take notice. What we now have in those areas is violent prosecution.”
He warned: “What we must realise is that marginalisation and discrimination is the beginning of persecution.”
But Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, argued that Christians can’t expect special treatment.
Sanderson said: “We have to be careful that we don’t claim persecution when other people have to abide by the same rules. If someone was talking about fox hunting or the environment, the rules will apply to them.”
He added: “We advocate that people should be allowed to say what they like, but we also advocate that they should obey the law. And the law says that there are certain things that cannot be said on the radio - such as to influence people in an election or to change the law.”
But Omooba insisted that Christians have been betrayed by the authorities.
He said: “The Queen, who was coronated under God, took an oath to protect the gospel. And now under the same-sex marriage deal she has been forced to break that oath, because she has given assent to something, which is contrary to the Gospel.
“We are being forced to believe in everything, but if you believe everything, you believe nothing.”
Kerrige has indicated that the fight is not over. He said: “Naturally we are disappointed with the judgment but will now consider further options which may be available to us with our legal representatives.”
The RACC has declined to comment on the case.